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‘Not Nothing’ Tries to Capture the Artist Ray Johnson - NYTimes.com
"The Siglio book, edited by the poet Elizabeth Zuba, spans most of this history. The first entries, from the mid-1950s, are pure text, blocks of single-space typed prose. Gertrude Stein’s cut-and-paste approach to language is an obvious influence, jazzed up by Johnson’s penchant, verging on compulsion, for associative wordplay and puns.

Even when his work was text-intensive, though, he had an eye alert to shaping it visually. In a second 1950s piece composed of lists of isolated phrases — “Virginia gets tomahawk,” “regards têtes” — he slanted the lists diagonally across the page and turned half the phrases upside down, a graphic that could have been realized only by a radical reimagining of what a typewriter could do.

Johnson had his art heroes — Joseph Cornell, Kurt Schwitters, Allan Kaprow, the Fluxus founder George Maciunas — whom he acknowledged in his correspondence work, placing their names alongside those of pop stars, art world potentates and personal friends. Name-dropping, if that’s what this was, is a recurrent feature of Johnson’s art, but it’s different than Warhol’s celebrity chasing.

Like Warhol, Johnson had an appetite for glamour and the politics of who-knows-who. But he was impatient with hierarchy. Warhol was a worshiper, Johnson a collector, a cataloger. In his work the same plane of importance is occupied by Marcel Duchamp, Anita O’Day and Toby Spiselman, a Long Island friend. It’s hard to imagine Warhol heading up an Anna May Wong fan club, but Johnson did. There’s a sense that for him all names are equivalent in value, are all collage elements, all “nothings,” or rather somethings, equally useful and even soothing in their sameness.

This is not to say that Johnson’s correspondences are embracing and warm. “Every letter I write is not a love letter,” he once wrote, and he wasn’t kidding. Wary distance was Johnson’s default position. When writing to people he didn’t know — Jacques Derrida, say — he could sound jumpy and twisty or haughty. Even in letters to close friends, like the historian William S. Wilson, his most astute biographer, Johnson tended to dance around difficult, intimate subjects.

He would almost certainly have leveled a cool stare at the 21st-century interest — amounting to a faith — in collectivity, collaboration and social practice as utopian models. Mail art, on the surface, looked democratic, nonelitist, even populist; theoretically, anyone could join in. Yet Johnson’s reports from New York Correspondence School meetings speak of members who were summarily banished from the roster for some infraction or other. Johnson himself, in what feels like a punitive spirit, dropped people from his mailing list. Was such policing meant to be tongue-in-cheek, mocking how the real world operated? Impossible to say. Johnson wore ambiguity like a shield.

Occasionally, though, we see him let down his guard, as in a 1975 letter: “I just can’t take it. Overload. My history is too much for me. By the way, the big emotional event of the year is the departure of Richard Lippold with a young Italian.”

For all the zany exuberance surrounding Johnson’s role as mail-art webmaster, there’s a lot of darkness in the book. Death is a running theme, in Johnson’s tight-lipped bulletins on the demise of artists (Albers, Eva Hesse) and weirdly repeated mentions of dead cats. He describes, with gusto, crushing insects in his apartment, and recounts, with bizarre hilarity, the killing of a rooster he witnessed at a boozy art party. His attitude in the telling is beyond irreverence, close to delight.

But was it really? Any conclusions drawn about Johnson’s psychology from his writing must be provisional. He was a master at covering his tracks. Even friends like Mr. Wilson, a frequent presence in his correspondence, felt they barely knew him. He might as well have been the E. T. that he sometimes looked like. We read the correspondences of artists and writers in search of some truth beyond what they give us in their work. But the only sure truth about Johnson is the work: pioneering, stimulating, witty, angry, exasperating and like no other. If there’s a lot we can’t know, that’s O.K. Mystery is part of his beauty and his lastingness."

[See also: https://pinboard.in/u:robertogreco/b:31e2f33614a6
http://kaleidoscope-press.com/2014/06/readray-johnsons-bookspublished-by-siglio-press/
http://sigliopress.com/book/not-nothing/
http://sigliopress.com/book/the-paper-snake/ ]
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august 2014 by robertogreco
Kurt Schwitters Archiv und Werkverzeichnis Kurt Schwitters (Sprengel-museum Hannover)
Kurt Schwitters archive at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover, Germanny. (Site in German)
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